Reenacting the Incarnation?

I had an odd experience at Christmas Eve service last night. After the first song, a young woman (I guessed in her late teens) read a poem, which at first I didn't like. It sounded too touchy-feely, as if the wonder of the Incarnation was an excuse to celebrate ourselves. I also grumbled in my heart against this young woman reading it. An older person would have read with more authority, I thought. Then the poem did call us to remember that we, with our imperfections, are chosen by God, and we should present our imperfections to him and ask for his help.

Then I realized my grumbling about the youthfulness of the woman reading was in error as well. Mary was about that age (perhaps younger?) when she was chosen to become the mother of the Son of God. But I grumbled at someone so young being given such a small role as reading a poem from the pulpit in a service. I still have things to learn yet. But even so, God is with me, to help me do better than I would on my own.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

The theodicy on my computer

I have a theodicy on my computer. My son and I bought it at Walmart five or six years ago. It's called "Age of Empires II". The people who developed this game probably weren't thinking of vindicating God's goodness despite the existence of evil, but that is what they did.

If you've never played Age of Empires II, it is a game where you have villagers that gather resources, so you can build castles and make knights and archers and catapults to defend yourself against the computer's army and to conquer the computer's empire.

Like a lot of commercial games, it has cheat codes that you can look up online. One lets you create sports cars armed with machine guns, which totally dominate the medieval battlefield of the game. When I saw this code, I tried it out and it was impressive. One sports car basically won the game for me.

But I've played the game hundreds of times over the years, and only a handful of times have I used sports cars. After all, what is the point? It's not much of a game if I do that.

That is the theodicy of it. When I'm tempted to feel frustrated with circumstances that I know God could fix or remove in an instant, I think of Age of Empires. Does God delay his instantaneous triumph over evil to make the game more interesting? Scripture says he does want us to have faith in His power and authority even when we can't see it in our circumstances.

If my villagers were intelligent, they might well be frustrated with me. Why do I send them out to risk their lives building towers at the edge of the enemy territory when I could win an instantaneous victory? "How long, Master", they might cry out. "Do you not care that we perish?" But I don't want to win in an effortless, instantaneous manner, I want to overcome in a challenging, complex manner.

The analogy only goes so far. I don't care about my villagers because I know they are only pixels on a screen and objects in RAM with a few variables. God does care about me and about the world, he has assured me of that over and over. But he has a much bigger plan than just loving me, and his plan usually doesn't include giving me instantaneous relief over my problems. Age of Empires has helped me understand that.

God's pleasure

I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.

Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire.

I've been thinking about that quote these last few days. When do I feel God's pleasure in what I do?

One time is when I write, either here or in my narrative projects slowly staggering towards completion. When I take the time to write, I'm often encouraged by a deeper sense of joy than my normal. The colors seem a touch brighter, the music in church seems a touch deeper, a touch happier.

This is a challenging fact, besides being encouraging. Often, I don't want to work at my writing, or anything else. I'm entranced by the 21st century false gospel: Life is supposed to be convenient and almost effort-free. If something is hard, I can't be expected to pursue it until "they" update it to make it easy.

But I think Scripture calls us to a long pilgrimage, often involving struggle against circumstances and my inclinations. There are moments of ease and comfort, an occasional dramatic victory when I see God's power unleashed, but the norm seems to be needing faith to believe in God's great power when I don't see it unveiled in my circumstances.

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!" -- a surprising blessing!

I've been meditating on Psalm 22 these last few days and have found encouragement in David's cry of desolation.

1) We worship a God who has endured far greater torment than anything we fret over.
2) We worship a God who promises to be with us in our distresses. The desolate feeling of verse 1 isn't the end of the story, read v 22, 24, 29-31.
3) we worship a God who receives and welcomes our honesty when we pour our distressed feelings out to him.

Do people still talk about the Four Spiritual Laws? I'm thinking Spiritual Law #1 could be reworded. Instead of "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life," I'd say "God loves you and has an astonishing ability to give contentment in distressful circumstances."

God is the answer

"I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away."
C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces.

How often we think of questions we want to ask God when we get to heaven. I wonder if we think enough about whether our questions will still be relevant after the transition. Or if the questions don't die away when we see him, their emotional tone would be completely different. Instead of "Why did you allow X?" in a tone of "You'd better have a good explanation;" we might ask "Why did you allow X?" in a tone of "What gave you the idea that X could be made to work out as well as you worked it out?"

God with me

When life is hard, I have a choice. I can believe God has forgotten me, otherwise this hard thing would never have happened. Or I can believe in this hard time that God is with me even when I don't feel His presence.

There is a related choice. When life is hard, and I've prayed to God for help and it hasn't gotten easier: I can believe God doesn't care about this difficulty and wants me to cope on my own, otherwise he would have fixed it. Or I can believe that something precious and new can happen in my heart when I express to him the difficulties I am feeling.

When Psalm 23 says that God prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies, I think it means that we can be blessed even in the presence of difficulty. The blessing is the peace God gives in the midst of the difficulty.

Emotional honesty in prayer

The point of my posts about prayer as a Panther's fan (part 1 and part 2) was to say I should be honest with God about my emotions.

Here are some other encouragements I've found to be emotionally honest in prayer.

1) Psalm 22. We usually read it as a prophecy of Jesus' agony on the cross. It is that, and more, I think. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me?" When it really really hurts, saying so to God is not a lack of faith, but is the response of faith. The Psalmist tells God "I feel really, really alone" then reminds himself who God is and that this feeling of abandonment won't last forever.

2) The song "Never Alone" by Barlow Girl. (listen here). "I waited for you today, but you didn't show", followed by "I'll hold fast to what I know, you're here and I'm never alone." The same cycle of expressing the feeling of abandonment then reminding yourself God is with you that David shows in Psalm 22.

3) A quote from Augustine's Confessions in the 4th century.
It is then our affections which we lay open unto Thee, confessing our own miseries, and Thy mercies upon us, that Thou mayest free us wholly, since Thou hast begun, that we may cease to be wretched in ourselves, and be blessed in Thee;

I'd paraphrase those words like this: "We lay our emotions open to you, confessing our weaknesses and difficulties, that you might free us wholly; trusting not our own ability to manage our feelings, but your ability to manage our feelings."

4. From the Westminster Catechism:

Q. 98. What is prayer?
A. Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.

5. Speaker Sy Rogers describes a dialog with God about his evil thoughts: "Why don't you do with your filthy nasty thoughts what you have never dared do. Why don't you just admit them and submit them to me." (The part I'm quoting starts just after 3:00 in the video.)


Compassion cries aloud in the Walmart lobby, at the busy intersection.
"Open your eyes, people. Get this if nothing else. That person you see, who annoys you, who's in your way, who doesn't get you. They too have a life, the same texture of surprising joys and harrowing sorrows as yours. Their purpose in life is not to ease your pain or make your life better. If they do encourage you, celebrate it. If they do not, are they in need of encouragement? You would not measure your life by how well you've helped them, why measure theirs by how well they have helped you?"

Why do we pray when God already knows what we need?

One reason: to express our love for the God who loves us. We admit our faults and weaknesses to him, so that he might advance this day the work he has begun in us, that we might yet become like him in character, longing more for his truth, justice and love than we do for our own comfort and pleasure.

The above is an adaptation of something I found the other day in Augustine's Confessions.
I have already said, and shall say, for the love of Thy love do I this. For we also pray, and yet Truth says, “Your Father knoweth what things ye have need of before ye ask Him.” (Matt. 6:8) Therefore do we make known unto Thee our love, in confessing unto Thee our own miseries and Thy mercies upon us, that Thou mayest free us altogether, since Thou hast begun, that we may cease to be wretched in ourselves, and that we may be blessed in Thee; since Thou hast called us, that we may be poor in spirit, and meek, and mourners, and hungering and athirst after righteousness, and merciful, and pure in heart, and peacemakers.

Prayer of a Panthers fan II

If you missed part 1 click here.
In January 2009, the Panthers were in the playoffs again. They’d won a first round bye and had home field advantage. Their game against the Arizona Cardinals started well, with a score on their first drive. Then the Cardinals scored 33 unanswered points, while the Panther’s offense sputtered with fumbles and interceptions. The final score was 33-13. “Lord,” I thought, “You know I’ve learned my lesson about honesty in prayer. Why are they getting drubbed again?”

There was no hesitation this time about practicing what I’d learned. And the Lord brought to mind another aspect. He led me to pray for Jake Delhomme, the Panthers’ quarterback. While it is true that I’ve been watching football since before he was born, he didn’t need to hear from me to know he’d had a bad game. While I was disappointed in the game, he must feel devastated. What was it like to have a really really bad day on nationwide TV? Then to have reporters wanting to know how bad you felt and fans clamoring for your resignation? I didn’t know, and I hope I never have to find out. But I could attempt in my prayers to echo the compassion of Christ towards him, and I did.

That next morning before going to church, I posted a Facebook note about my 2006 prayer lesson, the previous nights disappointment, and a prayer for Jake Delhomme that the Lord would comfort him and that we fans would be merciful in our disappointment. At church that morning, I felt joy that my note had pleased God.
This year, the Panthers have an 0-5 start. Jake is with the Cleveland Browns this year, and they’re at 1-4 (and Jake's been injured and hasn't played much). Before the season started, I had a daydream that the Panthers would meet the Browns for the NFC championship. It doesn’t look like that will happen–the Lord continues to work in mysterious ways. But I have a warm spot in my heart for the Panthers and for Jake Delhomme, they have been God’s agents in teaching me a good lesson: Honesty to God in prayer about what we are feeling is a good thing.

Prayer of a Panthers fan

The Panthers aren't doing well this season. This reminds me of a story ...

January 22, 2006: Why can’t I stop brooding about a stupid football game?
An hour earlier I’d turned off the TV disappointed at the Carolina Panther’s dismal showing in the NFC championship game. The 34-14 score said it all. I hadn’t expected the Panthers to make it to the Super Bowl when the playoffs started, but they’d done well in the first two rounds. Then this night against the Seahawks they had been completely flat.

If left to myself that night, I would have done one of two things. I could have gone to bed, trusting that in the morning I’d only feel a brief tinge of regret at the sad outcome. Or I could have gotten on the computer and rejoiced in my human skill and intelligence triumphing over the villainous yet stupid artificial intelligence that vainly sought to conquer my empire.

But I didn’t have either option. I had volunteered for security duty at my work place, which meant driving around the campus for two hours making sure every door was locked and building alarms had activated successfully. Perhaps the worst thing to do when you’ve just seen a disappointing football game and want to take your mind off of it.

But I really couldn’t believe how bummed I was feeling about the game. Why did it affect me so? First, I’m an intellectual. I know better than to get caught up in these mindless spectacles of popular culture. Second, I’d only lived in North Carolina for eight years, I was hardly a life-long Panthers fan. Now if the San Francisco 49ers had a really bad game in the playoffs, I might conceivably feel a brief pang of regret.

The thought came to offer my feelings of frustration and regret to God in prayer, and ask for his help. I dismissed the thought, this was hardly a spiritual issue. Twelve hours from now, I wouldn’t be worried at all about the game. What personal stake did I have in the outcome anyway? But I remembered an earlier reflection I'd had on prayer. No need is too big to bring before the Lord in prayer, since he is greater than any of our difficulties. But also is it not also true that no need is too small to bring before the Lord in prayer, since he calls us to live in relationship with him? Does not the Scripture say that he works in all things for good?

My skeptical mindset retorted that Paul hadn’t written that verse about football games. Could I seriously expect that when I get to heaven the Lord would show me some great blessing he worked in my life because the Panthers lost the NFC championship this day in 2006?

I decided to go with my impulse. “Lord, I know this is really trivial, but for what its worth, I’m bummed about that football game. I know I won’t be bummed about it tomorrow morning, but could you help me tonight.”

I can’t remember that my mood changed much after that prayer. There was no sudden sense of peace, and no angelic messenger brought tidings of great joy for the next season. Like I had predicted, the next morning I had only the briefest pang of regret about the game.

The next Saturday, in my quiet time, something reminded me of my prayer that evening when I was upset about the Panther’s game. I had the impression God was telling me he approved of my honesty in bringing that frustration to him in prayer. How odd, I thought, my skeptical mind had insisted that there could be no blessing coming to me from that disappointment, and yet here was a blessing.

Was there a larger lesson in this? If God values honesty in prayer, even over very short term disappointments like your team losing a game, how much more would he welcome honesty over the big issues in our heart. Yet I often fail to lay my emotions before the Lord. Why? Sometimes its my pride—the thought that I can handle this, or the desire to pretend that I’m not really upset. Or it doesn't seem like a pious thing to do, which shows I haven't been paying attention when reading the Psalms. Or else I think that since God has allowed this painful circumstance in my life, he either does not care or is not going to help me cope with the emotions.

But what if God wants to help me cope, but waits for me to ask for help? Why not level with him what I'm really feeling, since he knows I feel it anyway?


The name “Conservative” bugs me. The dictionary definition says “favoring traditional views and values; tending to oppose change.” But that misleads as much as it describes. Aren’t Democrats now conservative because they want to preserve their current majority in Congress? Isn’t Raoul Castro a conservative since he wants to keep the Communist Party running Cuba?
But “conservative” as most people mean it does describe my views. I’m in favor of smaller government, focusing on individual freedom and responsibility rather than promoting equality of circumstances. What should this view be called?
I’ve thought of the term “characterism”. This may not work because it is too similar to “characteristic”, but I chose it to assert the value of character. Character is the set of choices that a person makes, the attitudes one takes towards life. Character is what we choose to do with life, how we respond to what we are given. Bad things happen to all kinds of people. Some people collapse and give up. Some people keep on with what they are about. And many people despair for a time, but recover and face life once again.
Many forces in our society insist unhealthily on perfect circumstances. Accusations of racism, sexism or other injustices suggest that the victim can despair. Unless the victimizer is punished, or makes amends, the victim is not expected to get over it. This is good in part. When I am unjust, part of what should drive me to repentance is understanding the suffering I have caused. But it becomes false to take this to the point where a victim of injustice is nothing more than a victim, a person who cannot get over it.
I think there is also a philosophy that good character is a product of good circumstances. Do good to people, give them their rights, and all will be well. This too is partly true, doing well to others frequently encourages them to be better. But I don’t believe the personality is a blank slate, and that bad character only comes because bad things happened to the person. To say a victim can do nothing but wait for recompense before he can get on with his life ignores the great resilience of the human character. We can do good when evil has been done to us, we can get over injustice, and go on to thrive.
The Judeo-Christian world view puts character at the heart of reality. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Before anything else existed, there was God; a person, a character. The secular world view says the universe came first, and through an amazing set of coincidences, we arrived. So in that view, character and personality are secondary, cosmic accidents.
The Judeo-Christian worldview also asserts something very startling about this character at the heart of things. It says that God is good, when there is no force outside of himself that compels him to do be good.
We learn superficial politeness and consideration because of our powerlessness. We can’t make people like us or please us that often, so we learn to be pleasant and offer friendship and consideration so that others will return the favor. But Scripture says at the heart of the world is a being so powerful and resourceful that he could well choose to be spoiled and self-centered, and no one or nothing could resist him. But he has chosen to be good, even exceptionally good. The Christian story adds to this common tradition of powerful goodness, that God became one of us, took on our limitations, and nonetheless retained all excellence in character, even through being persecuted, misunderstood, and finally painfully tortured and killed.

Can computers translate the Bible?

My job is helping Bible translators with their computer questions.

Did you ever wonder if the computer can translate the Bible automatically? I realized today we can test this idea. I've found an online copy of the Greek New Testament, and Google Translator offers Greek as one of the languages it can translate to and from.

So how well does Google translate the Bible?
Here are the first ten verses of Matthew:

Paper acquisition Jesus Christ Son Son David Abraham. 2 Avraam begat Isaac, Isaac he begat Jacob, Jacob, he begat Judas and his brethren, he begat son 3 Ioudas Fares and Zara out of the Tamar, Fares son he begat Esrom, Esrom begat he son of Aram, 4 Aram he begat son Aminadav , Aminadav Naasson son he begat, begat he Naasson of Salman, 5 Salmon he begat son out of the Rachav boas, boas he begat son Iovid on Ruth, Iovid he begat son Jesse, 6 Iessai he begat David the king. But David begat Solomon out of the of Urea, 7 Solomon he begat son Rehoboam, Rehoboam son he begat Abijah, Abijah begat But the vague, 8 Asaf he begat Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat son he begat Jehoram, Jehoram son he begat Ozian, 9 Ozias he begat son Ioatham, Ioatham he begat son of Ahaz, Ahaz he begat Hezekiah, 10 Ezekias he begat Manasseh, Manassis he begat son of Amos, Amos son he begat Josiah, 11 Iosias Iechonian he begat son and his brethren on relocating Babylon.

Hmm. I sometimes get bogged down on long lists of names too. Maybe we'll try part of the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5:1-11:

Seeing the mobs went up into a mountain: and kathisantos him came to him his disciples: and opened his mouth he taught them saying, Blessed are the poor tῷ spirit, because such is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the mourners, for they paraklithisontai. Blessed are the gentle nature, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness, they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they eleithisontai. Blessed are the pure tῇ kardiᾳ for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are dediogmenoi sake of justice, because such is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye when he oneidisosin you, and dioxosin and say every evil throughout of you falsely for my sake: Rejoice and agalliasthe, that the wages of you in heaven: outos gar persecuted the prophets were before you.

I think we'll always need people to work in Bible translation. But computers are useful tools for human Bible translators. Read here to learn more.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's psalm of praise

How easy for me to live with you, Lord!
How easy to believe in you!
When my mind casts about
or flags in bewilderment,
when the cleverest among us
cannot see past the present evening,
not knowing what to do tomorrow --
you send me the clarity to know
that you exist and will take care
that not all paths of goodness should be barred.
At the crest of earthly fame
I look back in wonderment
at the journey beyond hope--to this place,
from which I was able to send mankind
a reflection of your rays.
And however long the time
that I must yet reflect them
you will give it to me.
And whatever I fail to accomplish
you surely have allotted unto others.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

What I admire in this poem is first of all the faith. "How easy to believe" he says, which sounds like some hymns I dislike for being too simplistic, singing that all our problems are over when we come to God. But that is certainly not Solzhenitsyn's story. He wrote this after going off to war as a young man, then going to the Gulag for eight years, then nearly dying of cancer, then suddenly finding success as a writer (for once a good surprise). So he certainly knew the bewilderment of not knowing what to do.

I also admire the humility. The fame he enjoys when he wrote this he sees as him reflecting God's glory. And he knows he's not the only one reflecting God's glory, whatever he does not succeed in is the tasks God has given to others.

Can you believe this?

A book I was reading quoted Psalm 46. Very familiar words, but I'm tempted to wonder how one can believe them.

1 God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

Are you kidding us? You actually expect us to believe you are so serene in God that a cataclysmic earthquake could throw a mountain into the sea, and it wouldn't disturb you? "Oh, that's interesting. How different the mountain looks hurtling through the air. Wow, that splash looks cool. I wonder how big the tsunami is going to be. I'm glad I know God though, otherwise I'd worry."

I don't know about you, but I don't think I could pull that off. If I were at all calm as I watched a mountain flying overhead and splashing into the sea, it would be because I just couldn't believe what I was seeing. Could God keep me calm? I suppose possibly, if Jesus appeared to me, said "Steve, take my hand and close your eyes, you won't want to watch this next part".

But yet the statement isn't false. If I really understood who God is, and that he has promised to always be with me, and to work out every circumstance for good, I wouldn't panic at a huge earthquake altering the landscape or an asteroid the size of Russia heading right for me. I certainly wouldn't panic at some comparatively minor thing like a hurricane that merely flattened my house and cut off power and water to the neighborhood for a couple of weeks. And really minor things like a car wreck or losing my job or discovering I had cancer I'd barely notice.

I can expound how Scripture should give me that kind of confidence in God. But I don't have it. Maybe the Psalmist who wrote these words didn't have it yet either, maybe he wrote this to say "If I really believed what I know I should, I'd be calm." Maybe like me he wrote that down, looked at his words and prayed, "Lord I believe, yet help my unbelief. Help me really get this deep down."

The astounding story in Acts 6

I think the Holy Spirit did something truly astounding in the beginning of Acts 6. Not an astounding miracle like the tongues of fire and the speaking in unknown languages that happened at Pentecost, nor an astounding healing like the crippled beggar.

The chapter begins with tension. The Greek speaking believers complain that their widows aren't getting as much food aid as the Aramaic speaking widows. Typical humanity, one group complains that another group is getting favorable treatment. What would normally happen? Some Greek speakers might start their own church. The Aramaic believers would criticize those radicals that split the church, who accused the apostles of favoritism. The apostles might call a press conference to say they weren't unfair in distributing food, and accuse their critics of disloyalty to the church God has established. The Aramaic believers might wonder why there weren't many Greek speakers in the church, but conclude that the Greek speakers have hard hearts, are just a bunch of barely converted (if that) pagans.

But instead, the apostles call a meeting and say that something needs to change. How rare is it when a majority group running an organization decides to make a change because a minority within the group is feeling disgruntled? Even more astonishing, the seven people picked by the group to take charge of distributing the food are all (judging by the names) Greek speaking believers. This is what astounds me. The Greek speaking Jews perceive unfairness, so the whole church decides they'll fix the problem by having Greeks do the distributing. Truly the Spirit was working in the hearts of the church members.

Is there always an easy way to do something?

Now and then I think about my American world view. One thing I think we Americans are always ready to assume is that there should be a fast, convenient way to do anything. We should be able to quickly get any food we want at any hour of the day or night, and the information we need or the music or video we want should be accessible from anywhere on our cell phone or whatever we have with us.

Has anyone else noticed that in our time "doing something by hand" now means typing something out character by character in a different computer program, rather than just selecting the relevant data and clicking on one button that pops it all exactly where it has to be? I'm old enough to remember typewriters. Have I forgotten what a wonder it was to work in a word processor the first time? I could go to any typo I'd made, just delete and retype it, I could insert words I'd forgotten in the middle of the text and the following words just moved over? Now it feels so arduous when I have to select, copy and paste five or ten different numbers from one page one by one into another form or a different page.

Scripture often talks about patience, endurance and long suffering. Paul prays for the Colossians that they would be "strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience." (Col 1:11). When I pray, I usually think of God's power as able to instantly solve this problem and make me happy again. "Lord, I know you can do it. Just divide the sea, throw the mountain in, raise the dead, confound your enemies and let me see what I want descending from heaven right in front of me." The temptation in my prayers is to imagine God's power making patience and longsuffering unnecessary. But that isn't how God works often. Could it be that His ways are higher than our American ways?

Dangerous Daydreams

Doris at Courage to Grow has an interesting post about Steven Slater, the flight attendant who made the news going down the escape slide after a quarrel with a passenger.

What challenged me was her point that Slater had cherished this fantasy for years, and when the situation presented itself, he acted it out. In my own heart, I can see some dangerous daydreams that keep coming back. How do I not cherish them like Slater did? A simple resolution that I won't think about X only goes so far. It feels paradoxical, like the witticism that says "Whatever you do, don't think about a blue elephant." We hear that and we start thinking about a blue elephant in the act of trying not to think about one.

I have found a real benefit in laying my dangerous daydreams before God in prayer. The temptation is not to admit my weakness, to think it is all a matter of my will power to resist the daydream. But when life is to be lived in relationship to God, I should have the honesty to admit to Him I am the weak person that I am, tempted by the things I am tempted by. My wierd daydreams are no surprise to him, I might as well admit what tempts me. I have felt peace when I have done that.

Another thing I have thought about is to think more broadly than just "not thinking about X". I try to think about the positive things that indulging my daydream of X would destroy or diminish.

The unnamed heroes of Hebrews 11

Hebrews 11 is described as the Hall of Fame of faith. The writer lists all the great heroes of the Old Testament who did great things because of their faith. There is a recurring refrain "By faith, X did Y": "By faith, Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain", "By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice," "By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned," etc.

At the end of the chapter, the writer says he doesn't have time to tell about all the heroes. He lists a few more names, and then describes the life of people he doesn't name. "Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground." (verses 35-38).

This seems like a different kind of faith than what Abraham and Moses had. We don't see great miracles here. Was something wrong with their faith? The writer starts to leave us wondering when he says "These all were commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised."

So you can have faith, not receive what was promised, and that's good? That's what the writer is saying. He ends with this: "God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect." Their faith was good and commendable because it was looking forward to the really great thing that still hasn't come yet, which I think is the Kingdom of God in all its fullness.

God and our organizations

What is the characteristic of God’s work in human history? God has intervened to come alongside us, sinners who do not deserve His companionship, and works in us to make more of ourselves in His service than we could attain on our own. How should our organizations work in light of God’s work? Here are some principles I’ve thought of:

1) Organizations are only temporary, only God and people are eternal.
The besetting sin of organizations is to think that they are more important than the people in them, to think people only have value when they advance the organization’s goals.
But to say the organization only exists to benefit its members is also not good. Individuals need to give themselves to something larger than themselves, God is pleased when this happens.

2) Organizations please God when they call, encourage and facilitate people to invest their individual effort, time and identity in a larger purpose of God’s, outside their own individual lives. This echoes in a small way Jesus laying down His life and giving His life to live in us. We glorify God when we voluntarily lay down what is merely ours as individuals for a larger purpose.

3) When organizations force people to do certain things, that diminishes the glory of them voluntarily giving of themselves to the task. In the real world, force or compulsion must sometimes be used, it is not an unforgivable sin. But it should be used sparingly. To compel people to do a good thing may have a short term benefit, but to persuade them to voluntarily do the good thing is a greater benefit.

4) People who voluntarily take on a larger purpose will usually perform better than people who follow orders to take on a larger purpose. They will spontaneously and creatively adapt ways to fulfill that purpose in their circumstances.

5) When an individual expresses his fallibility and weakness before God, he is likely telling the truth, and this is a sign of strength. The same is true of an organization. An organization can admit weakness in itself, and the leaders can admit weakness in themselves, while still being faithful to the vision. To gloss over failures and difficulties in the name of upholding the vision is actually to subtly betray the vision.

Truths in tension

There is a paradox in the Christian faith not often talked about. Two fundamental truths are in tension. The first truth is that God loves us, and identifies with us where we are. The second truth is that God is not content with how we live now, but wants us to do better.

If we focus just on God's love, we accept personal mediocrity or even dysfunction in our lives. Or if we focus just on God's standard of behavior, we set up an impossible standard of perfection that no one can measure up to, and present God as distant and forbidding.

We need to keep both in mind. God accepts us where we are, but then seeks to help us to improve. We shouldn't think we have to change before God can be pleased with us. We also shouldn't think we don't need to change, because we do.

I think Micah 6:8 reflects this paradox:
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

"To act justly" focuses on God's standard of behavior. "To love mercy" focuses on His acceptance of us where we are. Both are needed to walk humbly and fruitfully with our God.

Paul confronting Peter

My wife is working on a guide for new translators to the book of Galatians. She and her colleague have been grappling with the account of Paul confronting Peter. The usual interpretation of "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew" is that Paul says to Peter "You accept freedom from the Jewish law for yourself, why not give the Gentile believers the same freedom".

My wife and her colleague are thinking there is another interpretation. Maybe Paul is using 'Jew' in this phrase to mean 'a true person of God'. In Romans 2:28-29 he says a true Jew is not just an outward Jew, with a physical descent from Abraham and a physical circumcision; but one who is Jewish inwardly, circumcised in heart by the Spirit. So what would a 'true Gentile' be? Someone uncircumcised in heart, whether they were outwardly non-Jewish or even outwardly Jewish.

Maybe his accusation of Peter is saying "When you withdraw from eating with your Gentile brothers, you are reinstating the separation that Jesus died to end. You are uncircumcizing your heart and acting like a Gentile in heart, even though you are a physical Jew."

This sounds complicated. But I do think it makes a bit more sense of the next couple of verses. "If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God." (Gal 2: 18-19). I've always been puzzled by "if I rebuild what I destroyed", and thought it must mean when Paul repents of sins and attempts to restore relationships with people he'd sinned against, that is rebuilding what he had destroyed. That would mean "through the law I died to the law" is a new thought. But maybe the two are one thought. Maybe Paul means "If I rebuild as a requirement the Jewish law, which I once had died to through my faith in Jesus' death and resurrection, I have become a transgressor". Maybe Paul is imagining himself in the position Peter took briefly, to display what a bad mistake it would be to bring back the law as a requirement.

One thing that does seem clear to me. When Peter separated himself from the Gentile believers, he had forgotten the exhortation from the voice in his vision, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean." (Acts 10:15).

My favorite building in Charlotte

My favorite building in Charlotte isn't in the skyline photos. It's the Rosewood condominium complex at Providence and Sharon Amity. I like it because it reminds me of classic French chateaux, rather than trying to express the conceit of making the world anew. But the big reason I like it is I know the architect. Curtis and Liz started coming to our Sunday school class some months ago. When they hosted a gathering at their house, I was fascinated by Curtis’ drafting desk in the living room. He had some photos of Rosewood, and told us where to find it.

Some months later, I was driving up Providence and stopped to take a quick look around and take a few pictures (hoping I didn’t look like a burglary suspect casing the joint). It amazes me thinking of this lovely eight story building coming out of the imagination and planning of my buddy Curtis.

I’m reminded of Jesus’ words in John 14:2. “I am going there to prepare a place for you”. The time will come when we’ll see some very special architecture, in a house that will be ours, and we’ll all know the architect. His genius in design we can already appreciate (galaxies, planets, landscapes, many other things). We’ll have many new reasons to appreciate it that day, I’m sure.

The Rosewood Condominium site

The promise of the New Covenant

This is how the "faith and circumstances" theme started. In 2005 I was pondering Jeremiah's promise of the New Covenant. "This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
after that time," declares the LORD.
"I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.

No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,'
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,"
declares the LORD.
"For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more." Jeremiah 31:33,34

I found this promise hard to believe. If this New Covenant promise really worked, I thought, our churches would be a lot different. Our churches have many people teaching us to know the Lord, teaching us what the Gospel really means if we truly understood it. The promise seems to say that shouldn't be needed.

Then a picture came to my mind. Moses called the people to go forward into the Promised Land, and everyone except Joshua and Caleb didn't dare go. (Numbers 13 and 14). God had promised to give them the land, but the people didn't believe the promises because the land had enemies living in it. I don't find in Numbers anyone saying "If God had really given us this land, the enemies wouldn't be there anymore", but I bet people thought that. I know I would have. But God didn't drive the enemies out ahead of time because He wanted to show the people they could believe in the promise before it was fulfilled.

So I realized Jeremiah's promise of the Law written on my heart was a promise I could claim and believe in, even when I still saw my heart full of enemies of God's law. I could believe in the promise even while the enemies still lived in the Promised Land. So I began to do that, and my spiritual life began to change.

I still have many enemies of God's law living in my heart. But there are fewer enemies than there used to be. And the promise is nonetheless true.

Literal vs figurative

Some (both from within and without) characterize evangelical Christianity as taking the Bible literally. I think this is oversimplification. A view I've heard is that one should take literally what was intended to be literal, and take figuratively what was intended to be figurative. So when the Psalms talk about sheltering under God's wings, that is a figurative, poetic image, not to be taken literally.

But I wonder if that formula, while very good, isn't itself somewhat over simplified.
A prophetic passage I have pondered from time to time is Isaiah 7:14. "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel."

There are two statements here. First, the virgin will have a child. Second, that she will name him Immanuel. The first statement is fulfilled quite literally. Mary concieved a son while she was still a virgin. The second statement wasn't fulfilled literally. She and Joseph named their son Jesus, not Immanuel, because the angel told them to do so. We do use the name Immanuel to refer to Jesus, but that usage isn't found anywhere in the New Testament.

What in the text tells us that the first statement is literal and the second not so literal? I'm not aware of anything. I suspect we only know how to interpret those two statements because we know how they were fulfilled.

The fang and the thorn

A dog up the street frightens me. Thankfully, most of the time she is inside. But I have often wondered, walking past that house. She has barked and bared her fangs when I walked past, then she would slink along behind me after I passed showing her fangs when we looked back at her.

One evening my wife and I walked past the house, relieved that the dogs were not in sight. Another neighbor coming toward us, gave words to our sense of relief. “How nice to walk dog-free.”

Tales of animal attacks are big on cable TV. Shark attacks, crocodile attacks, bear attacks, and others. The victim shows his or her scars and retells the story of near death at the fangs of a creature “seeking what it might devour.”
Scripture does have a bear attack story (2 Kings 2:24) and Matthew 7:6 ends with the image of savage dogs or pigs tearing people to pieces.

But Scripture seems more concerned with the thorn than the fang. The curse on Adam was that the ground would bring forth thorns and thistles instead of food. God warns the Israelites that the other nations in the land will be thorns in their sides (Numbers 33:55, Joshua 23:13, Judges 2:3). Laziness leads to thorns in your vineyard (Proverbs 24:31). Isaiah uses thorns as a symbol of a land under judgment abandoned by its people (Isa 5:6, 34:13). Jesus says the cares of this world are thorns crowding out the seedlings of the Word. Paul describes his great trial or affliction as a thorn in the flesh (amplifying the image used by God for the enemy nations).

Yet isn’t the fang more frightening? I’ve never worried about any of our neighbor’s plants, nor have I ever wondered if the neighbors might be afraid of our rosebushes. So why does Scripture worry about thorns so much? It can be argued that thorns are more dangerous. The curse in Genesis 3 is that our agriculture will not always succeed. We will work to grow food, but food won’t always come. History shows us that thousands, at times millions die in famines, when the vegetable kingdom has not produced for us.

Paul’s image of the thorn in his flesh is dramatic because of its implied avoidability. A literal thorn in your flesh ought to be easy to deal with. Just take it out. Yet the spiritual thorn in the flesh Paul cannot take out. He prays to God three times to take it out, but God chooses not to. Is that not part of the unseen drama?
“God, I know you see how much this hurts. And it is not at all hard for you to pluck it out. Why aren’t you helping me?”
“My grace is sufficient for you for my power is made perfect in weakness. Paul, I could change the circumstances that give you so much pain. But I can also give you peace in the midst of your pain. Which is the greater display of my power?

That dog has been an encouragement to pray. I've thought of David's words: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Now I shouldn't exaggerate; that dog is not the shadow of death. (She isn’t a pit bull). But I could call her house the shadow of punctured skin. And if God is able to sustain in the fear of death, how much more can He sustain in the fear of a flesh wound? So I began to commit my epidermal integrity to God as I walk past.

A couple months ago I thought about Jesus’ words to pray for our enemies. Can I pray for that dog? I don’t believe dogs have souls, but I’m sure they have emotions. What lies behind their aggressive behavior must be a mixture of fear and anger. So I’ve prayed for those emotions to be stilled. While my prayer is driven by the desire not to be bitten, I don’t think this is a purely selfish prayer. If the dog feels less fear and anger, my prayer would increase her happiness as well as my own.
I’ve also included in my prayers the dogs’ owners. I’ve never met them, but I pray now as I pass that house, that they would be abundantly blessed. May their table be so laden with the riches of God’s mercy and love, that even the dog is transformed by the crumbs of blessing that fall from her master’s table.

In the last few weeks I've noticed a difference. I've seen the dog outside a few times, and she hasn't threatened me, she hasn't even barked at me.

Jehoshaphat's Prayer

We studied Jehoshaphat's prayer and God's deliverance of Judah yesterday in Sunday School. The story is in 2 Chronicles 20. A large army comes to invade Judah. Jehoshaphat prays, reminding himself and God of God's promises. And God provides a miraculous deliverance.

This story matches the "faith and circumstances" theme of my blog. Jehoshaphat had the faith to believe in God's promises even in difficult circumstances. When my faith has been weak, I would have reacted to Jehoshaphat's circumstances by saying "Now I know God's promises can't be true, or this army would never have come to invade us." But Jehoshaphat still believed God, and called on Him to uphold His promises.

Let us remember to do likewise in our trying circumstances.

Efficiency in God's plan

God's plan from the Scriptures: preparing a people, becoming incarnate among them, empowering them to tell others so that the message permeates around the world. More than once I've wondered why this seems so inefficient. Why do missionaries have to struggle with learning languages, applying for visas and finding money for airfares?

What do we see in Acts? Among other things, we see the Spirit gifting people with instant ability in a foreign language (Pentecost), and we see the Spirit transporting Philip instantly across a distance of several miles. (Acts 8:39-40). If these two miracles were more common, the two biggest hassles of missionary existence would be solved. Why does God not choose to work that way? Surely every people group could have been reached by the Gospel within two or three centuries after Pentecost. Perhaps even sooner?

I've thought of an even more rapid plan than that. Suppose God the Son had chosen to become incarnate as Abel? Abel could have formed one or two disciples, told them he was not just a son of Adam, but the Son of God, performed miracles, told them he would lay down his life for their sins, and then be murdered by Cain. Abel comes back to life, tells his disciples to tell everyone what he had done, and ascends into heaven. How many people exist to be preached to? Maybe less than ten, maybe forty maybe perhaps even a hundred. This depends on your view of how many children Adam and Eve had that weren't mentioned, plus how many children they had. Potentially the Gospel of salvation could have been preached to every human on earth at one family reunion. Or maybe it would have taken longer (Cain perhaps was anti-social for a while there). But this whole messy period of the Kingdom of God coming into human history but not fully present yet could have only lasted a year, or a few years.

So why didn't God choose to work this way? Obviously I don't have the full answer. But one thing does come to mind as I write this down. In either of my efficient scenarios, I wouldn't be here. Since in heaven we are like the angels, not marrying, I assume that means we don't have children either. So if Christ returned centuries ago and brought in the fullness of the Kingdom, I would never have been born. So I guess that's at least one argument for the "inefficient" mode.

The last verse of Hebrews 11 says that God had planned something better for "us" (the original readers of Hebrews) so that only together with "us" would the heroes of the Old Testament be made perfect. I'm guessing the same logic applies. In God's plan, only together with us twenty-first century folks, will the Apostles and Augustine and Wesley and Townsend be made perfect.

Faith and Circumstances

Some people believe God's promises can't possibly be true, or they wouldn't be in the circumstances they are in. I've been guilty of that in the past (even though I've hardly suffered any great tragedy in my life).

Other people believe God's promises will come true some day. For now, we just repeat them to ourselves, soothing ourselves with the familiar words but not expecting them to impact life today.

But I'm coming to think the real life of faith scrutinizes the details of God's promises, and also scrutinizes the details of our present circumstances, and lays the discrepancy between the two before Him in prayer. The promises will not be totally fulfilled in this life, but they can be fulfilled to a greater degree than we might imagine.

Completing the parable of the talents?

For years now, I’ve wondered if parable of the talents (Matt 25:13-30; Luke 19:11-27) was incomplete. A familiar story, a master goes away entrusting three servants with different sums of money. (Luke uses a different term for the money, and different amounts). The first two servants invest the master’s money and are praised when the master returns. The last servant buried his master’s money in the ground because he was afraid to lose the money (also he was afraid of his master, calling him a hard man).

What I want to know, what would the master have done if the servant’s investments hadn’t succeeded? I'd add another servant, between number two and number three. Like number two, he was given two talents. When the master comes back, he comes forward reluctantly. “Master, you entrusted me with two talents. One talent I used to buy goods for a caravan, but the caravan was taken by robbers and your money was lost. With the second talent I bought goods to trade by ship. This began well, your one talent of goods bought two talents worth of gold and spices. But when the ship was returning, a great storm came up, and the sailors had to throw out the gold or the ship would have sunk. Your spices survived and sold for one talent, so here is what is left of your money.”
What would the master say to this servant? Would he have been angry about the lost money? Or would the master have appreciated that the servant made an effort?

I’m coming more and more to the opinion that the master in Jesus’ parable would have honored the servants intention and not punished him for failure. The master might have asked a few more questions about why the servant had chosen those two investment options, but if the servant had good reasons for believing in them, I think the master would have approved. Surely it is not just in our time that investing is risky.

The Biblical passage that I think speaks most clearly to this is in Hebrews 11. The writer gives a list of the great heroes of the faith. Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and several other heroes of the Old Testament are named and their faithfulness praised. But the chapter ends with heroes who aren’t even named. “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated-- the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.” Their faithfulness in adversity is challenging for us to remember, but what was the great victory they gained? They courageously faced suffering and death for their faith, but to what good? Aren’t they like the servant I added to the parable, who tried to be faithful but didn’t succeed?
But the writer of Hebrews makes it clear. “These were all commended for their faith,” the ones whose faith didn’t succeed just like the ones whose faith did succeed. He goes on “none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” Even Moses and David, who won perhaps the greatest outward victories in the pages of the Old Testament, didn’t receive all they trusted God to do. Even their greatest victories were imperfect and incomplete. But all faith is seen and rewarded by God, if there is visible success or not.